Vision Quest: Part II

Could the outcome of last week’s Democratic US Senate primary in Maryland hold the key to finally ending Capitol Hill’s half-decade of inaction on climate change?

Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s victory over Rep. Donna Edwards in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski is being spun in some quarters as a defeat for diversity–which is rather strange, in the sense that Van Hollen is perhaps best known for a policy proposal that will benefit Americans of all backgrounds. In 2009, Van Hollen introduced a rather innovative measure to address carbon pollution:

[I]t is an astonishingly simple piece of legislation – a mere 20 pages long.

The reason this little bill might end up punching above its weight is because it speaks loudly where the 648-page climate bill introduced the day before by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) remains silent: on the question of carbon credit auctions and allocations.

Van Hollen wants to auction 100% of the permits that companies will need in order to release carbon into the atmosphere – in other words, no free giveaways to polluters, despite their demands.

He also wants to return 100% of the auction revenues equally to every American resident with a social security number. That’s the “dividend” in the bill’s title – also sometimes referred to as “cash back” or “rebate.”

Van Hollen’s legislation was sidelined in favor of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (a/k/a Waxman-Markey), which passed the House in mid-2009 but died in the Senate in mid-2010. Four years later, Van Hollen took a second crack at market-based climate legislation; the Washington Post noted at the time that Van Hollen’s idea was perhaps the only remaining concept that had a chance of securing bipartisan support:

The country is reaching a moment of decision on global warming. Scientists’ warnings are sharpening, and President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency is acting in the absence of a policy from Congress. The EPA rules can’t be as clean and efficient as market-based plans such as Mr. Van Hollen’s. That reality could persuade some industry groups and some Republicans to seek a bargain that would replace the EPA efforts with a less bureaucratic approach.

If, as some Republicans fear, Donald Trump causes the GOP to actually lose both houses of Congress this year, carbon-pricing legislation will likely be at or near the top of the Democratic Party’s Capitol Hill agenda thanks to a push from dedicated climate activists–and if Van Hollen defeats Republican opponent Kathy Szeliga on November 8, he could play a key role in ensuring that such legislation doesn’t collapse in the Senate this time around. If so, then Van Hollen’s bold idea will be remembered as one whose implementation could only be delayed, not denied.

I’m confident that the divisions of the Maryland primary will ultimately be healed. I’m also confident that if Van Hollen’s well-crafted policy becomes law, Americans of every race and creed will thank him for his efforts to protect their children and grandchildren.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.